Autumn on Lake Thoreau

Autumn on Lake Thoreau

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reston is #10 in MONEY's Best Places to Live in America.

Here's what they have to say about Reston:
10. Reston, Va.
POPULATION: 61,177
CENSUS REGION: South
MEDIAN FAMILY INCOME: $142,404
MEDIAN HOME PRICE: $395,550
AVERAGE PROPERTY TAXES: $4,619
PROJECTED JOB GROWTH: 1.8%
Reston was the first modern planned community in the country, and the vision of its founder (who still lives there) has held up beautifully. The city is made up of five woodsy “villages,” which encompass a range of lakes, pools, shopping areas, golf courses, and more. Fifty-five miles of paths wind through these communities, ensuring that most homes are within a half-mile walk of a village center. The city’s de facto downtown is the lively if generic Reston Town Center mall, which has the usual assortment of shops and eateries, plus a pavilion that hosts concerts and, in winter, ice-skating. The headquarters of ComScore and Rolls-Royce North America are also located in Town Center, along with a Google office. Traffic in the area can be brutal, but things are looking up for folks who don’t work in town: An extension of the D.C. Metro opened in July, and it whisks Restonians to the center of Washington in a speedy 40 minutes.
Click here to see the full list of 50 best small cities.

The double-edged sword of private donations for public parks.

A post by Tate Williams entitled "The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)" on the "Inside Philanthropy" blog highlights the growth in private giving to build, enhance, and sustain public parks and the issues that creates.  Here are some excerpts from the post, but you may want to read the whole thing:
Private funding is pouring into parks lately, and not everyone is happy about it. Regardless, cities are putting together creative projects with massive backing from wealthy donors, and it’s not all happening where you might expect. 
Every city, it seems, wants to launch the next High Line. The abandoned-railway-turned-park in Manhattan is the poster child for private funding developing urban green space, and giving a shot of vitality to surrounding neighborhoods. Projects like that one are sprouting up all over the country, whether by nonprofit conservancy or public-private partnership.
Parks philanthropy seems to be surging at the intersection of a few trends. For one thing, you’ve got the overall concentration of wealth and concomitant rise in philanthropy nationally. Then there’s the fact that many city and state budgets have suffered following the economic crash, and parks aren't a top priority. But there’s also what one urbanist has termed the Great Inversion, in which the middle- and upper-classes are flocking to city centers, who miss those nice parks left behind in the ‘burbs. As for urban areas still struggling to lure people back, parks and bike paths are seen as the kinds of amenities that attract educated professionals to put down stakes. . .
. . .  But many view the trend as a threat to the public good.
For example, Reuters columnist Felix Salmon blasted gifts like John Paulson’s $100 million to Central Park, pointing out that he’s essentially getting a huge tax benefit by putting funds into the wealthy neighborhood in which he lives.
There’s also the issue of equitable access. Most of these large grants go toward one park, often in affluent or gentrifying neighborhoods, and not the entire park system, which would benefit rich and poor neighborhoods alike. Margaret Walls of Resources for the Future points out in her research a number of downsides to outsized philanthropy in parks, including the fact that when private funding steps in, public funding tends to shrink. And that private funding is very rarely enough to ensure sustainable, year-to-year operations and upkeep. . . .

Is this rock bottom for Virginia real estate? Office owners can only hope. Washington Post, September 22, 2014

The title of Jonathan O'Connell's WaPo article pretty much says it all:  The office market in northern Virginia stinks.  And this article documents it well as well as many of the causes.  Strangely, not once in the article does it highlight the ongoing shift in reduced office space per worker, a reduction of about half as organizations shift to open space working environments and few (if any) private offices to improve collaboration, take advantage of telework, and just plan save money.

Nonetheless, here are some key excerpts from the article:
This may be the worst time in the past 25 years to own an office building in Northern Virginia. At least one with space to lease.
After mostly uninhibited growth since the early 1980s — a run that produced some of America’s wealthiest counties — there are red flags popping up from Arlington all the way to Stafford County.
Consider: More than one-third of all the office space along Interstate 395 is empty. Thirteen entire buildings sit completely empty along Route 28. In Rosslyn, the biggest building in the region hasn’t found a single taker. Experts say the area is suffering from the same flat leasing environment as the District and suburban Maryland, but with some other heavy factors unique to the commonwealth piling on...
Defense cuts — beginning with the Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure Commission and continuing with sequestration — have led to drastic space reductions and spending cutbacks. Contractors have been forced to cut their staffs.
Worse, there is a surplus of buildings in car-centric locations so disliked by millennials that some wouldn’t be caught dead taking jobs there. Five years after the recession, the paradigm has shifted so swiftly that some of the aging suburban office parks may have to just be torn down. . .
“In a contractor-dominant market, spending cuts have a ripple effect,” said Scott Homa, vice president for research at JLL. “You don’t need to look very far along the Toll Road or Route 28 to find cases of prime contractors just handing back the keys to leased space and consolidating their operations elsewhere.”

The most disconcerting statistic, Homa said, may be Northern Virginia’s absorption — the rate at which rentable space is filled or vacated. In the past 25 years, Northern Virginia has had only three years when more space was vacated than leased, meaning it had negative absorption for the year. It has now had negative absorption more than three years running, unlike other competing markets.
But it isn’t all older buildings in the exurbs that are suffering. Seven of the 40 empty buildings were built or underwent major renovations in the past decade. In Tysons, many of the moves to buildings near the newly opened Silver Line have been from older buildings nearby, often for less space. And some of the highest vacancy rates are in what has become a favorite of developers and investors for a decade: Arlington.
. . . sometimes even neighborhoods such as the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor feel too far off the beaten path. Touted for its lively neighborhoods around Metro’s Orange Line, the area’s office market has been in near free fall recently. Between 22 and 23 percent of all the office space in Arlington County – more than 8 million square feet — is vacant. That is nearly triple the rate in 2010.
Vacancy in Rosslyn is even higher — 29.7 percent, according to Cassidy Turley. The county’s largest building, at 1812 N. Moore in Rosslyn, is completely empty 10 months after completion. Government agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, are departing for less pricey Northern Virginia digs.
Click here for the rest of this article.

And the clear implication of this high office space vacancy rate:  Higher real estate property tax rates for all homeowners to make up the difference in lost revenues from the office market.  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

RA's move to a less democratic, less transparent governance process

Last month the RA Board considered a motion to create a Governance Committee that would supersede that authority of several of its standing committees and, worse, set in place a process that would see the new committee select the Board's successors.  On a motion by Board member Richard Chew, the Board deferred action until this month at its September 24th, 6PM, "working meeting."

John Lovaas discusses this proposal in his most recent "view" article in Reston Patch:
THE VIEW FROM OVER HERE
The Reston Association Board of Directors meets the last week of each month. RA’s top staffer, CEO Cate Fulkerson, oversees the preparation of a packet of materials for each meeting--a packet that ranges from 50 to 100 or more pages of excruciating detail and trivia. Recently, one subject caught my eye. It is a CEO/President proposal to create a Governance Committee, which will be the subject of an unpublicized full Board “working meeting” at 6 PM on Wednesday, Sept. 24 at RA. Y’all come!
Since July, Board members, along with a consultant brought in by the CEO, have been skirmishing about the Governance Committee which would sit at the very top of the pyramid of RA committees. This ruling committee would be in addition to the existing Board Planning Committee which currently sets the agenda for Board meetings and is responsible for strategic planning. The Governance Committee would absorb several of its functions, including strategic planning. This new Committee would consist exclusively of Board President, VP, Secretary, and the CEO, whereas the Planning Committee is much more broadly representative. This concentration of power, including decision authority, is one reason why Board members have not reached agreement yet.
In addition, the proposal calls for Governance to have extraordinary powers, such as “succession planning”, including picking a “pool” of people who would be eligible for election to the Board . . . .
Click here for the rest of this article.

We believe the RA Deed is very specific about who is eligible to run for election to the Board.  We don't need a small group among the Board deciding for us who is eligible.  That is what elections are all about!

We strongly urge Reston residents to attend Wednesday meeting and, if give the opportunity, express you views on this vital topic to all Restonians.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A little historical perspective on Reston's affordable housing situation

While researching contemporary issues and opportunities for middle- and low-income housing in Reston, Google brought us to this 1984 report prepared by Reston Interfaith on the problems facing Reston in meeting its vision of providing housing for all incomes and ages from GMU's Reston archive .  Although the numbers have changed, apparently the problem hasn't.  Plus ca change, plus le meme chose!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

When is a Fairfax County property "blighted" and how does it get fixed?

The draft Phase 2 Reston Master Plan contains the following language in the section concerning our neighborhoods:
. . . from time to time, circumstances may arise that merit consideration of the redevelopment of an existing cluster or neighborhood, such as if a cluster should become blighted (emphasis added).  Under such circumstances, the Board of Supervisors may consider proposals to amend the Comprehensive Plan to allow for the consolidation and redevelopment of such clusters or neighborhoods.  (p. 48, working draft Reston plan text, September 5, 2014)
Yet nowhere in the Reston draft plan is their a definition of "blighted" nor a a metric of how "blighted" is blighted enough for County-permitted redevelopment.  Apparently, Virginia law limits current County authority to act on "blighted" neighborhoods to situations endangering public health or safety, which is certainly a reasonable standard. 

Now we learn via a Fairfax Times article by staff reporter Kali Schumitz  that the County Board of Supervisors is drafting plans to tighten up on actions with regard to "blighted" properties:
Currently, the county can take action to repair a property when it presents a danger to public health or safety and the owner has failed to make repairs. Under those conditions, the county can then place a tax lien on the property for the cost of the repairs.
However, county code enforcement officials have encountered instances where there were severe problems that were affecting neighbors but the problem did not present an imminent threat to public safety.
In those cases, the county has to go through court proceedings. If the owner still has not complied with a court-ordered repair, the county can then make the repairs, however it is more difficult for the county to ever recoup the repair costs because they cannot utilize a tax lien. . . .

On Tuesday, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors discussed possibly pursuing legislation at the state level that would expand their ability to act outside of the court system and to use tax liens to recoup the costs.
While supervisors were supportive of the expanded powers in extreme cases, . . . they wanted to ensure it would not apply to the more typical code violations that the county deals with.
Click here to read the full Fairfax Times article.

We worry that the language regarding court ordered repairs based on "severe problems affecting neighbors" lowers the standard substantially.  Clearly, there are always situations when one neighbor is loudly dissatisfied (if possibly erroneously) with the condition of another neighbor's property, and there is no operational definition of what a "severe problem" is.  We think this standard is unacceptably weak. 

More worrisome is the fact that the County is seeking additional authority to act outside the court system when there is not a clear public danger.  That opens wide the possibility of all kinds of half-baked reasons for the County to consider a property "blighted" based on people's opinion, not on some objective standard.  Unless some clear operational definition is provided of what the circumstances are that constitute "blighted" (and none are offered in the draft Reston plan text), we must oppose the County initiative as potentially leading to capricious and arbitrary decisions that generate costly renovations or redevelopment of properties.  And we are talking about acting on people's private property without their approval, indeed, over their objection, whether it's and individual homeowner or a massive apartment or office building.  In this kind of situation, we believe the County's authority should be seriously constrained.

Environmental Design Change Won't Bust Silver Line Budget, Says MWAA, September 18, 2014

Martin DiCaro reports:
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s new Silver Line project chief sought to assure the public on Wednesday that an environmental design change to the second phase of the Metrorail extension to Dulles Airport will not further burden taxpayers and toll payers.
Charles Stark, newly hired to oversee the Dulles Corridor Metrorail project at MWAA, said a $548 million contingency fund will more than cover expenses related to complying with new Virginia stormwater runoff regulations designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed, first reported by WAMU 88.5 on Monday.
Any construction budget increase likely would fall on drivers on the Dulles Toll Road, whose tolls are covering half the Silver Line’s estimated $5.6 billion price tag. Phase I, from D.C. to Reston, opened in July seven months late and $150 million over budget. Phase II is scheduled to reach Dulles Airport in 2018. . .
“If the contingency fund is exceeded, who is going to pay? It is going to be the taxpayer and above all the poor people driving down the Dulles Toll Road who are already being asked to pay a huge amount of money for the Silver Line,” said John Hanley, vice president of the Reston Citizens Association, a group that represents 50,000 Reston taxpayers and has been a vocal critic of the Silver Line’s financing scheme.
While the environmental design change may not exhaust the contingency by itself, other problems that may crop up between now and 2018 likely will, Hanley said.
Click here for DiCaro's full report. 

So neither MWAA nor Clarke Engineers, which is managing the project, know how much added money or time MWAA's unilateral decision will take to voluntarily meet new stormwater management requirements.  That appears to be a failure of due diligence on MWAA's part, not to mention a lack of consideration that they are paying next to nothing while toll road users and Fairfax and Loudoun taxpayers pay more than 94% of all the added costs.  And even if they don't use all the contingency fund, wouldn't it be nice to save toll road users and taxpayers a few pennies??? 

But the decision is just MWAA behaving like it always does--unilaterally and capriciously.